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Fukushima: a disaster with a long half-life

No solutions and no end in sight to leaks and contamination, more than two years after Japanese nuclear disaster
Last modified: 25 Aug 2013 18:26
Workers clear away radioactive soil and debris [Reuters]

The Japanese are masters of self-restraint, stoic despite great suffering. You are reminded of this when you consider the disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant: 18,600 dead or missing, 160,000 displaced because their homes were destroyed or contaminated, and an unresolved radioactive catastrophe that rivals Chernobyl.

But unlike Chernobyl, which was contained fairly quickly, Dai-ichi is a slow, simmering, leaking menace.

Almost three years have passed since the power station was damaged, and it is clear that while its location on the coast and surrounded by rivers aided the initial battle against its three meltdowns, it is now hindering its full shutdown. The reactors are leaking radiation, and the area is still too dangerous to approach. In short, it cannot be contained.

Proposals to seal off the area, drain the water table, treat the radioactive waste and fix dangerously broken reactor number 4 come and go. Nothing much actually happens. Now there are new leaks, from sub-standard tanks that were neither adequately installed or inspected, according to Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the NRA.

Tepco, operators of Dai-ichi, never inspired much confidence. Now, the Japanese you speak to say, in a quiet voice, that they “don’t believe any statements they make”. 

A year ago, the government stepped in and took a majority stake in the company. Since then there’s been a change in ruling parties. Both governments promised to do more. They have not. 

The stoic Japanese have got used to living with this drip-feed of bad news. There is no outrage. It barely makes the front page. Instead, the local media has been marveling at “us lot” – the foreign media – and how excited we have got about this latest nuclear mishap. Didn’t we know the issue had never gone away?

Japanese have shown immense compassion towards their own citizens. Charity fundraising continues for the bereaved, orphaned and disposed. The homeless are guests in other people’s homes across the country – still.

But they have given up hoping for miracles. I’m told by some here that there is the money to compensate and accommodate people better, to rebuild and restore. But somehow government will and energy is lacking. And the Japanese economy is in a terrible state.

It feels like the Japanese people are tired of living in the middle of a crisis.

I asked a family living in a supposedly “safe” area outside the restricted zones - which still mysteriously has unsafe hotspots of radiation - what they would like to do. They told me: “We are terribly concerned, especially for the children… but where would we shift to?”.

I asked a volleyball team picnicing on the beach just down the coast from the power station whether they thought about the contamination in the water. They replied: “Well it’s everywhere. Our gardens are just as bad, so we might as well come here.”

The Japanese PM has headed off on a Middle East business trip. He’s talking anti-piracy patrols with the Americans in Djibouti... but mostly he’s supposed to be promoting “Japanese nuclear technology”... and “Japanese nuclear safety technology”.

Not the best week to embark on a nuclear sales pitch.

At the same time, Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, has flown to Ukraine on “a fact-finding mission to Chernobyl with the aim of sharing experience in overcoming the consequences of nuclear disasters”.

It’s the first trip by a Japanese FM to Chernobyl since the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. Perhaps the ‘government will’ is being reinvigorated.